A Short Tale from Nowhere

The afternoon that we met the mountain goat, we agreed never to tell anyone where we had landed on the map. Our disposition toward secrecy might have been unfair, but I remember a park ranger I worked with once who often told this tale:

There you’ll be in Alaska, surrounded by tidewater glaciers, and there’ll be a rainbow over the water when all of a sudden an orca breaches underneath it and sure enough, there on his back is a wolverine. There’s a wolverine riding an orca under a double rainbow, and there will always be that one passenger on your boat who will shuffle open the park map and tug on your sleeve and ask “but where are we, on the map, I mean?”

That’s not the thing that matters. We could have been anywhere in the outer mountains of Washington’s Pacific Coast that day, and our story would be the same.

Imagine a dusky hike up a washed-out logging road. The sky is darkening; with a limited view, we focus on our stride. Our legs are quick and our packs feel light in the buoyant evening air. A river booms in an unseen gorge at the trail’s edge, and starlight illuminates lofty cliff faces on our other side. We are hemmed in by sound and light, you and I.

When the moon rises, lanternlike, above the ridge, we set up camp by the river and fall asleep in a fog of our own breath. At sunrise, we shake the damp from the tent and march deeper into the woods, farther from the place at the end of the dirt road where our car waits under a gathering tracery of Doug-fir needles. All day, we move through the rainforest. We are on the hunt for a glacier, but all good destinations demand a journey.

river

We pass splintered hillsides felled by avalanches, we brush past ferns, shout over the ruckus of waterfalls. At night we camp under the shadows of trees that were never logged. Wee mice scale our tent and pass above us like nocturnal mountaineers.

Two mornings after we began our hike, we climb past a little shelter built in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century. On a weather-beaten post, we find a hiker’s name carved into the wood with this telling script:

Snowbound, 1973

Shortly after passing the cabin, we ascend out of the deep woods and into the ice age.

Well, sort of.

At the top of an alpine pass flushed red with autumn blueberries, we turn onto a steep side track. Clouds lift and roil as we climb–exposing raw, serrated peaks, spilling through dry cuts in the rock like rivers. The mountains seem arid today, but they know some of the highest precipitation in the continental states and their snowpack breeds a collection of muscular alpine glaciers that, at their grandest, carved the contours of peaks that even our last big continental glaciation couldn’t cut. That’s right: the last great ice sheet that extended into Puget Sound divided around the Olympic Peninsula rather than overrunning it. Without a doubt, any glaciers to be found in these mountains must be the mightiest of the mighty.

We curve around the edge of a little cirque, its surface dimpled by wind, and clatter up through dry scree to the end of the trail. It is like climbing a ladder into the sky. Our trail lands us at the top of a thin ridge that drops off beneath us a couple hundred feet or so. This is a moraine that we’re standing on: a wall of rock folded up by glacial ice and left behind like the lip of a bowl as the glacier receded.

The bowl is empty.

basin

Below us is a gray-blue lake in a basin of rocky debris and above that, dirt-brown mountains. It takes a moment to resolve the glacier out of the raw earth around it. What we see is reminiscent of those pictures of the Martian landscape that just came out in the news: those tracings along canyon walls that look like seepage channels after a first rain, mud and dust enwrapping whatever water might lie underneath. Nothing moves; nothing shines. Up high, we spot a little white ice, all loosened and crystallized from a hot summer, but the lower body of the glacier–what’s left of it–is ash-toned rubble. These are the rocks that were once contained in ice, melted out now and blanketed on top of the glacier like soil on a fresh grave.

The thing is, the landscape, actually, is dazzling. For all of our solitude in that big place, for all of the skyscraping bare rock pinnacles, we could be visitors on the moon. There is an end-of-the-world beauty to this place that charges me with equal currents of love and guilt. We are so alone here, the rock so freshly exposed, the mountains beyond us so wild and trackless–I can feel the power of it all, and also the culpability that comes with knowing that I–we–have played a hand in exposing this scoured-out shell of a once-mighty glacial runway.

We sit there for a long time, quietly, letting the wind blow in between us, watching the clouds wisp through the crags. It is a beautiful desolation. How lucky that we get to see this place with no other visitors, we tell ourselves. How fortunate that this part of the park doesn’t draw big crowds like elsewhere. Let’s keep it that way.

But of course we likely would have gone home to brag about our exploits if it weren’t for the mountain goat. He, too, has been sitting on the ridge with us. It takes us a long time to notice him, folded so neatly among the boulders. He’s gazing out over the meltwater lake. His goat mind might be on the lichens that he’ll graze on the rocks left behind by the ice. Or maybe he’s just watching the clouds, too. Either way, I leave you where you’re sitting and I walk a little closer. Without bravado or alarm, he raises his head and rises to his feet. He looks at me. And it’s so clear in that moment–beyond any animal behavior fuss or ruckus–that we’re not welcome here. There’s no animosity in his look, just aloof appraisal. I feel like a solicitor at the doorbell, knowing the homeowner is on the other side of the window, seeing me, choosing not to answer.

mountain goat

Your face is turned toward me from where you sit, waiting to see how this encounter shapes out. I don’t push my luck (after all, a few years ago a man was gored to death by an angry mountain goat in this park). I turn away from the goat, walk toward you. We shoulder our backpacks and, with an unbroken forward momentum, we hike down from the ridge, over the pass, along the steep trail lined with crimson berries and storm-beaten trees, and back into the rainforested river valley.

I like to think of myself as a creature of the mountains–in love with the whistle of marmots in the high summer meadows, the buffet of wind on lonely ridges. But to settle in a place for an hour or a day or a week qualifies you only as a visitor. That goat knew sideways winter gales and the dry clatter of empty glacier valleys. The trails that his family blazed tangle up through thickets of blueberries and across sheer scree slopes. He has gazed out over the barren landscape in the drowning Olympic rains and has felt the parch of this summer’s unprecedented drought. It is possible that in his lifetime, from his perch on the edge of that moraine, he has seen that glacial basin still filled with ice. This was not our mountain. We witnessed it, and we left.

I’ve thought about it, upon returning: whether or not to share the name of the place we visited. Would it be thronged if we touted its apocalyptic beauty? Likely not. Odds are, with a little research, you can find it, but I do believe that it is not my glacier to share. Sure, a few extra hikers on a mountain pass probably won’t make much difference in the life of that goat and in the fate of that glacier, compared to the factories that pump coal through their burners, the forests that have been felled for farms, the harsher and harsher swings in weather. In fact, seeing–really seeing–the end of the ice age in those big mountains might do a lot of people a lot of good. To feel, indisputably, the weight of fault.

But here, you can see it now.

This is how our glacier changed between 1936 and 2004:

glacial retreat

And here’s what it looked like when I visited last month:

glacier, autumn 2015

You don’t need to take a plane, or a roadtrip, or a long hike in the woods in order to visualize the change we are capable of bringing to a landscape.

But perhaps you, like me, crave those edges of the human experience. To stand where you don’t quite belong. To let a mountainscape rocket through you like electricity. Maybe to liberate your own inner mountain goat a little. If that’s the case, you don’t need a name or a map from me. This world is still a wild, wild place. Walk far enough from the end of any road, and you will find what you’re looking for:

A landscape sculpted by time.

An animal never tamed.

A ridgetop quick with wind.

And maybe–if you sling your pack on soon and start hiking–a glacier or two before they’re gone.

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